Ramen. The mere mention of the word ramen can conjure up two images, each of a noodle bowl, but they are entrées that stand worlds apart.
Were you that college student, living on a time and money-strapped budget, who existed on bricks of instant noodles reconstituted into a salty soup? Ah, those were the days.
Then, suddenly you hear about a ramen restaurant. What? Surely a restaurant would not serve those instant noodle bricks!
Confusion simmers. You hear of delicious steaming bowls of chewy noodles in a rich broth. People comment about the line outside the shop, waiting for a chance to seize a bowl.
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Can that be the same ramen?
Well, yes and no. Instant ramen noodle bricks are the fast food version of a Chinese noodle dish, first popular in Japan, and sold to folks seeking filling yet inexpensive meals that are quick and easy to prepare.
On the other hand, flavorful ramen noodle bowls are a hot trend and restaurants featuring the comforting noodle soup are bubbling up everywhere.
Yes, they share a name, but they are as different as grandma’s rich homemade mac and cheese is from the box of mac and cheese made with the instant orange cheese powder. Maybe more so.
If those inexpensive instant packages nourished you through hungry days, you may be stumped by the ramen restaurants and what is simmering there. Don’t be intimidated. The flavor of that ramen bowl is warm, nourishing and comforting.
The bowl simply features noodles, broth and some toppings so there is nothing to fear and lots to enjoy. Before you know it, you will be craving ramen on a regular basis.
Here are five tips to ease your way into that steaming bowl of ramen goodness.
Ramen bowls are filled with lots of long, chewy noodles in a rich, flavorful broth. The long, thin noodles are slightly curled and are different than those in the grocery store dried brick. The chewy, slightly yellow-colored wheat noodles will have a bit of a bite and are absolutely delicious. The technical explanation is that the texture and color are due to the alkalinity, but you will only taste that they are wonderful. They are unique, and slightly different than the Italian pasta we often think of, but their incredible flavor and texture are definitely worth a trip to a ramen shop.
Even those without a trained palate will taste the rich fish, pork shanks or vegetables that are simmered to make the best broth you will ever taste. Perfectly seasoned and rich, the great flavor is going to thrill you at the first bite.
The soup is often classified by the flavor of the broth — and salt (shio), soy sauce (shoyu), miso and pork (tonkotsu) are traditional. Restaurants frequently add tender pieces of pork or chicken to the bowl and now vegetarian broths are offered. Selecting the broth you like sounds easy, until you taste them and realize they are all great.
Chefs talk of taking hours, even days, to create the incredible broth. Patrick Curtis of Shio Ramen Shop on Broadway uses a refractometer, a laboratory instrument that measures how light refracts or bends as it passes through substances, like water. It is used in the wine industry, but Curtis has discovered that it is a way to evaluate the richness and density of the broths he cooks so he can keep it consistent, day after day. No matter how they do it, expect to savor a richly flavored bowl of broth.
The toppings are fresh and varied. You will find marinated 6-minute eggs, pickled vegetables, chopped scallions, herbs, fish, seafood, seaweed, chicken, pork and many others toppings. Some will be familiar and others will be a new taste treat. Restaurant menus list the toppings they typically use and many will give helpful definitions so you can become more familiar with them. The staff will guide you if you wish to shy away from a super spicy addition. This may be a new food adventure for you. That’s OK; move out of your comfort zone and you will discover amazing new flavor blends to enjoy.
Slurp the soup
Expect a casual, cozy restaurant where slurping is expected. If you are one that feels a little intimidated by white table cloths and the feeling of being judged for using the wrong fork, this is absolutely the restaurant for you. Slurping and eating in a hurried fashion is expected and encouraged. Typically you will be given chopsticks, but if it will make you more comfortable, feel free to ask for another utensil. Then, quickly slurp — that is the only way to get all of those yummy noodles in that incredible broth. You don’t want the noodles to get soggy so don’t let them soak in the broth long. This is not the spot for a leisurely meal. Set your table manners aside and just enjoy.
Some ramen restaurants post rules on the front door, asking you to sign in when you arrive or reminding you not to linger at the table. Simply follow the instructions if they are posted.
The restaurants are popular, busy and often small, so if you go during typical lunch or dinner hours you may see a queue waiting to get in. Overlook it, knowing that the diners should be in and out in rapid succession.
One large bowl
The bowls of steaming ramen are large so appetizers, salads and sides are not required. Some ramen restaurants offer them. But really, one bowl is all you need or want.
Some ramen shops have ventured into delightful chilled ramen dishes and those are definitely worth a taste as well. Cold, fresh and a little crunchy, they may hit the spot on a hot day, but the steaming bowl of soup is classic and is what made the dish famous.
Are you ready to move beyond the grocery store dried brick? Chances are, you will not tackle making ramen at home and instead will dive into a steaming bowl at one of the local ramen restaurants.
Learn the lingo
Don’t get stumped by the menu. Here are a few terms that might not be familiar to you.
Bonito Bonito — A type of tuna, and flakes of this fish are dried. It is also known as katsuobushi and is used to make dashi, a popular fish stock.
Chashu — Pork belly, a common meat in ramen.
Dashi — A popular stock, made of fish and kelp that is often used in Japanese cooking.
Daikon — Asian radish
Gochujan — Spicy, red pepper paste from Korea
Katsuobushi — Dried, smoked Bonito. The flakes are often fermented.
Kelp — Seaweed
Kombu — Seaweed or a sea vegetable often used in the broth or stocks.
Mirin — Rice wine
Miso — Fermented soybean paste that is high in protein and umami (a delicious, savory) flavor. Miso ramen is one of the four main classifications of ramen and means the stock is opaque and has a complex flavor.
Nori — Dried seaweed
Shineji — Oyster mushrooms. These along with other mushrooms such as shitake mushrooms often flavor or top ramen noodle soup.
Shio — Salt. Shio ramen is one of the four main classifications of ramen and means the light colored broth is flavored with salt.
Shoyu —Soy sauce. Shoyu ramen is one of the four main classifications of ramen and means the stock is darker than shio and is flavored with a sauce made of fermented soy beans.
Six minute eggs — These eggs, sometimes called half-cooked eggs, are cooked in their shell for six minutes and have a texture similar to poached eggs. They are then marinated in a soy sauce, mirin, garlic and ginger mixture.
Tonkotsu — Tonkotsu ramen is one of the four classifications of ramen and indicates that the stock is richly flavored with pork. While pork can be used in other ramen, the pork in this broth has been cooked for many hours so it creates a gelatin rich stock.
You are now armed with an arsenal of knowledge so confidently open the ramen restaurant door and enjoy that delicious ramen meal.
KC area ramen shops
Here are a few of the local ramen restaurants we have discovered.
Bōru Ramen Bar. A large, welcoming restaurant with a varied menu makes this an ideal spot for dinner out with friends. Also open for lunch. 500 W. 75th St.
Columbus Park Ramen Shop. Tiny, casual and friendly ramen shop, open for dinner Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. Be sure to glimpse through the kitchen door and see the huge soup pots simmering on the stove. 549 Gillis St.
Komatsu Ramen. Open for both lunch and dinner, it has a sleek, modern décor and a menu that includes salads and buns. 3951 Broadway.
Ramen Bowls. Casual ramen restaurant, just off Massachusetts Street in Lawrence, known for making their own noodles. Open for lunch and dinner, the menu features appetizers, including their spam musubi. 125 E 10th St., Lawrence.
Shio Ramen Shop. Cozy, comfortable, small restaurant open for both lunch and dinner. They make their own fresh ramen noodles and you can easily order an add-on of extra noodles, meat, eggs or chili oil for your ramen. 3605 Broadway.